We’re not allowed to talk about it. That was a note from the channel,” says James Acaster in an outtake from the new series of Hypothetical. His co-host on the panel show, Josh Widdicombe, has just mentioned the Covid-19 pandemic. “Can’t say it,” says Acaster, “can’t reference it, can’t point out why we’re more spaced apart than usual.”
It’s a funny clip that Dave, the channel that makes Hypothetical, was happy to tweet out on its official account, but it highlights a dilemma that a lot of TV creatives are facing at the moment. Assuming Covid restrictions allow you to make your show in the first place, do you let the experience of life in the pandemic become a part of it?
“It’s not a case of absolutely not under any circumstances mentioning it,” insists Richard Watsham, director of commissioning at Dave’s parent company, UKTV. “It’s just about trying to minimise those mentions. When it comes to comedy and entertainment, I’ve always felt strongly that we were reflecting people’s need for escape.” That’s the crux of the problem: TV aims both to reflect reality back at us, and to offer us an escape from that reality. Covid has dominated our lives for nearly a year and it’s not disappearing any time soon. It is fairly easy for a non-topical panel game such as Hypothetical to forget it and have some abstract fun, but can comedies and dramas set in the present day keep ignoring it?
Some have concluded that they can’t. Sarah Jessica Parker alarmed many fans of Sex and the City last month when she announced Covid will “obviously be part of the storyline” in HBO’s forthcoming revival, because it concerns modern life in New York, and that life has changed. Similarly, the writers of the NBC sitcom Superstore (available on Netflix in the UK) felt that since their show, set in a Walmart/Target-esque “big box” store, deals with the everyday experiences of ordinary people, it was duty-bound to mirror how those experiences have been fundamentally altered. So when the sixth season began airing in October, Covid was foregrounded. The following month, ABC hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy returned for season 17, with its doctors facing a wave of Covid patients and central character Meredith Grey falling seriously ill.
When the writers of Grey’s convened in June last year to sketch the new season out, however, showrunner Krista Vernoff reportedly floated the idea that the show should ignore Covid altogether. In the end, Vernoff’s writers – many of whom are or were doctors – successfully countered that they couldn’t ignore the biggest medical story in recent history.
Not every show feels such a responsibility, however. Take Succession: a series that’s certainly of the moment, in that the caprices of our plutocratic media are as relevant as ever, but which hardly ever interacts with reality directly. In its second season, a brief glimpse of antifa protests was a rare brush with explicit topicality. Breakout star Sarah Snook recently told Variety that the pandemic won’t be tackled head-on in season three “because that’s not the show. We want to see the Roys doing the thing that they’ve been doing that we love.” Masks, vaccinations and lockdown measures are likely to be background noise at most.
“There really feels like significantly less need to mention it in drama,” says Watsham. “We’re all used to sitting down to a box set in an effort to inhabit another world for a little while. So I’m quite happy for our dramas not to reflect it.”
Nicola Shindler, chief executive of the Manchester-based Quay Street Productions, agrees. Her current ITV series, Finding Alice, was partly filmed after the arrival of Covid and could have acknowledged it, but takes place in a world without it. “My instinct is that, right now and for the short-term foreseeable future, viewers want to be taken away from unpleasant realities and reminded both of how life was and how it could be soon.”
Comedies without pretensions to social commentary have found bolder solutions. Mr Mayor, Tina Fey’s new sitcom about an LA politician, debuted in January and portrayed a post-Covid world in which it was breezily explained that Dolly Parton had bought everyone a vaccine. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s new season, coming this autumn, is set to pull a similar trick: Covid will exist, and Larry David will certainly have opinions on how his friends reacted to it, but it will be a past event that won’t loom large.
The genre where you might expect daily life to be portrayed most faithfully is UK soaps, but, even there, producers have been reluctant to let Covid take over. “Casualty and Holby City charted the impact of the pandemic on the wards,” says Yahoo! UK soaps columnist David Brown. “And when Emmerdale was cranking back into gear last year, there was a week of specials that depicted life in lockdown. Since the big soaps ramped back up to six episodes per week, though – or four in EastEnders’ case – things are hazier. We haven’t yet seen anyone succumb to the illness and die, outside of Casualty. Covid exists, but you’ve got the Queen Vic being open when pubs had closed, and people popping into each other’s homes when there was no household mixing in real life.”
Viewers do understand that soaps are filmed several weeks before broadcast, so they haven’t always reacted promptly to changes in lockdown rules. “What they’re less forgiving of,” says Brown, “is the sight of people on the ITV soaps coming into indoor spaces and removing masks to speak their lines. That seems like a topsy-turvy decision as we’re all masking up to enter shops. I’m guessing they want masks to be a part of this world without it impeding our ability to understand what actors are saying. But it does look odd.”
The producers of Superstore found that out the hard way. After filming several episodes with a rule in place that characters would wear masks whenever their real-life equivalents would, it was relaxed, simply on the grounds that it was hard to shoot and looked bad on screen. Perhaps the biggest problem with setting shows in a Covid world, however, was exemplified by a joke about Tiger King: by the time Superstore’s season premiere went out in October, the reference to a Netflix documentary people were watching during lockdown one in April felt ancient.
Now more than ever, content needs to be “evergreen”: a show, or even worse a single season of a long-running series, that features Covid will be uncomfortably jarring for the streaming viewers of the future. “We hope masks and social distancing won’t always be here,” says Shindler. “Shows [that include them] will instantly date.”
When UKTV’s Watsham issued his edict to Acaster and Widdicombe, he was more worried about the lag between filming and transmission, and the possibility of Covid having subsided before Hypothetical aired. His reasoning applies even more strongly to shows with a potentially endless future on streaming. “I imagined that point where we’re all starting to emerge from our hibernation. We’re back out on the streets and the sun is shining. We’re finally liberated from lockdown. Do we want to be reminded of it?”